Research Shines New Light on Role of Women in Founding Jewish American Education

Laura Yares has spent “years sitting in archives” researching a period of Jewish American education that historians have largely overlooked as insignificant, a period in which very little had been written about up until the release of Yares’ recently published book, Jewish Sunday Schools: Teaching Religion in Nineteenth-Century America.

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies with a joint appointment in the Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University, Yares spent 10 years researching and writing her new book about the women volunteers who laid the foundations of Jewish education in America. Though historians have largely written off their contributions, Yares explores the “important and influential work” of these women, which extended far beyond the classroom.

A woman with short brown hair smiling
Dr. Laura Yares

Yares will discuss her new book at an event on Wednesday, Nov. 15, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in Room B-342 of Wells Hall on MSU’s campus. This lecture and discussion, hosted by the Michael and Elaine Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel, is free and open to the public. Complimentary refreshments will be served. A live stream of the event also will be available on YouTube.

What Does It Mean to be Jewish in America?

The first Jewish Sunday school in America was founded in 1838 in Philadelphia by Rebecca Gratz and a pioneering group of women. Their efforts soon grew into an entire system, led by women, who educated vast numbers of Jewish youth across the country for more than 70 years. Yet this history is largely unknown. In her book, Yares addresses why this story had yet to be told.

“In many ways, the book is not only a historical work that looks at what happened in these schools, what was taught, and the experiences of the teachers and students,” Yares said. “It’s also a book that raises questions about how we tell the story of American Jewish education. It asks: ‘What are the ideological prisms that shape how we describe success, or lack thereof, and how we describe who is making the decisions that ultimately come to bear on what is happening in the classroom?’”

A book cover that says "Jewish Sunday Schools: Teaching Religion in Nineteenth-Century America
Cover of Dr. Laura Yares book, Jewish Sunday Schools: Teaching Religion in Nineteenth-Century America.

Yares calls the 19th century the “silent period” in the history of American Jewish education. The long-held belief is that it wasn’t until the 20th century, when Jewish schooling was taken over by male professional educators, that Jewish education in the United States became fortified as Sunday schools were transformed into Hebrew schools.

“When I looked a little deeper at what was happening in this period,” Yares said, “it quickly became apparent that this narrative was not only rather simplistic but that the critiques of 19th century Sunday schools had specifically gendered dimensions.”

Jewish Sunday schools were a model for Jewish schooling created by a group of Jewish women in Philadelphia and then replicated by women in Jewish communities across the country. In the history of American Judaism, this period has broadly been dismissed as a time when Jewish education had little substance because most of the classroom teachers were women who had been offered few opportunities for Jewish education themselves as children. Yet they brought many other skills to their classroom work.

“The problem that Rebecca Gratz and others who founded Sunday schools were trying to solve was how to make Jewish education accessible for a generation of newly arrived immigrants who had very few social or financial resources. That problem is still with us.”

“As I learned more about who these women were, I quickly realized that the narrative, that because these teachers didn’t have Jewish knowledge these schools were entirely redundant, just doesn’t hold water,” Yares said. “The women might have been volunteers, but they had other skills and experiences that they brought to this work. Just because this wasn’t their professional occupation doesn’t mean they weren’t knowledgeable. In fact, many of them were public school teachers and so they brought significant pedagogical expertise to their volunteer work as Jewish teachers.”

In her book, Yares argues that the presupposition that Sunday schools offered little that was educationally valuable overlooks the critically important ways that these schools created access points for Jewish learning. Sunday schools were a pragmatic institution for new Jewish immigrants who wanted to provide their children with a Jewish education yet didn’t have the financial means to send their children to expensive all-day schools or to hire private tutors. Yares, who considers her research to be a feminist project, says two of the greatest advantages of using volunteer educators during this period were that Jewish education became accessible to girls and affordable for everyone.

A painting of a woman
A painting by Thomas Sully of Rebecca Gratz, founder of the first Jewish Sunday school in America.

“The problem that Rebecca Gratz and others who founded Sunday schools were trying to solve was how to make Jewish education accessible for a generation of newly arrived immigrants who had very few social or financial resources,” Yares said. “That problem is still with us. This question of financial pressure is one I feel very personally as a millennial parent of Jewish children.”

While historians have largely dismissed the curriculum of these Jewish Sunday schools as static and stagnant, with lessons that primarily taught saccharine female spirituality, Yares found that the teachers and administrators who worked in these institutions in fact wrestled in profound ways over the course of the 19th century with the all-important questions of how to sustain Judaism in an overwhelmingly Protestant-majority America, and how to translate Jewish religious concepts to children at a grassroots level.

“They were trying to make sense of what it meant to be a Jew in America,” Yares said. “In Europe, historically, to be a Jew meant that you were automatically a part of the Jewish community. In the U.S., however, there was more freedom to choose whether you wanted to become a member of a synagogue or not, whether you wanted to marry a Christian or not, etc. In many ways, the question that 19th century Jews were trying to answer in their Sunday schools is a question that American Jews are still trying to answer — what does it mean to be Jewish in the modern world?’”

Research Beginnings

Yares grew up secular in Birmingham, England, yet she was always curious about her Jewish heritage. That curiosity led her, as a first-generation college student, to study Jewish history and Judaism at Oxford University, with a particular interest in Jewish schools.

After earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Oxford, she spent some time in Canada where she attended McMaster University and picked up another master’s degree in Religion and the Social Sciences. Then, in 2008, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she earned her doctorate in Religious Studies at Georgetown University. This is where her early research on Jewish Sunday schools first began.

A group photo of several children at a pageant
Children at a pageant held at the Sunday school of Temple Beth Israel, Portland, Oregon, February 1898. (Courtesy of the Jacobs Family Photo Collection, Oregon Historical Society, Portland)

“One of the delights of working in Washington, D.C., was that the Library of Congress was practically on my doorstep,” she said. “That was where I started my research during grad school. By leafing through the catalogue and doing some creative searching, I came across a huge number of catechisms written by American Jewish educators during the 19th century. I was surprised to find these sources because historically Jews don’t write catechisms. They are a Christian text. So, I started this project by trying to understand why Jews wrote catechisms and why and how they were meaningful for American Jewish education at the time.”

Catechisms are documents that provide basic summaries of the principles of a particular faith, often presented in a question-and-answer format. The Jewish catechisms that Yares found presupposed that children needed to be drilled full of knowledge.

“I started this project by trying to understand why Jews wrote catechisms and why and how they were meaningful for American Jewish education at the time.”

“As I started reading through these catechisms, it struck me that there was more going on here than what historians had previously assumed about Jewish Sunday schools — that they taught only saccharine spirituality with no deep Jewish content,” Yares said. “Many of these catechisms leaned very heavily not only on traditional Jewish knowledge but also engaging modern philosophy. One of the first questions asked in so many of these catechisms was the question, what is religion? This showed me that the authors of these catechisms were really in touch with bigger questions about what religion was and how it could be defined…The idea that Judaism could be a religion and thus be part of a much broader set of conversations about what it meant to be a human being in the world.”

After finishing her dissertation in 2014, Yares spent four years as Director of Educational Research and Innovation for the nonprofit organization Hillel International, in addition to adjunct teaching at George Washington University. When she accepted a full-time teaching position at Michigan State University in 2018, she dusted off her dissertation and started to think about how it could serve as the basis for a book and what additional research was needed.  After receiving a grant from the American Jewish Archives (AJA), Yares was preparing to delve into the AJA’s repository of Jewish history in Cincinnati in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic brought those plans to a halt.

Remote Research

The social distancing mandates put into effect at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the indefinite closure of public research institutions like archives, museums, and libraries. For a while, it seemed to Yares that it might be impossible to complete the book. At the end of 2020 and early 2021, however, the AJA opened the doors for their staff, enabling them to offer remote research services to the public. Yares was able to use some of the AJA grant money, as well as some department funds that would normally be allocated to meetings and travel, to pay for an AJA staff member to photograph research materials so that she could view them at home in Michigan.

Working remotely made the process of painstaking review of these documents difficult, to say the least. Yares would go through the collections of what these archives had online, then talk to archivists about what her topic was and what she was specifically looking for.

“Doing historical research is kind of like doing a puzzle where you’ve only got about a fifth of the pieces and you don’t know what the picture is,” she said. “Often, you start looking, then something leads you to something else, and it moves quite erratically. As you realize what else the archives might have, you begin forming a picture of that story. Doing that yourself, in person, really is the best way to do this, but remote research was ultimately better than nothing.”

Drawing of a woman standing at a podium reading to a classroom of kids.
Drawing of Rebecca Gratz presenting a Sunday school lesson from a podium. (Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio)

Because her book project told a national story, Yares contracted with remote researchers who photographed collections for her in historical archives in Ohio, New York, California, and Oregon until she was finally able to get into an archival collection in the metro Detroit area herself in late 2021.

“I would tell them, ‘I see you have this in your collections. What do you think? What else could I be looking at?’ They were taking digital pictures and scanning things,” Yares said. “If the archivists were good, they would say, ‘You know I got this, but I noticed that this other thing might be relevant’ and use a little bit of initiative. That was the ideal scenario.”

Yares had to really scrutinize the scans on her computer since not all the 19th-century documents were well preserved. Some documents posed challenges due to handwriting that was difficult to decipher, or because they used languages other than English, such as German and Hebrew. Fortunately, Yares reads both languages.

New Book Project

Yares is now working on a new book with co-author Sharon Avni, Professor of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at the Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY). It is funded by an ongoing grant from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. This new book is a contemporary project that explores what people learn about Judaism through museums, pop culture, social media, and other cultural activities.

Focused on adult learners, this project utilizes ethnographic research methods — including interviews, observational and digital fieldwork, audio diaries, and content analysis — to explore how learning about Judaism happens outside of formal classroom settings and during leisure time.

“At the heart of all my work is a concern for taking education and learning seriously, and for taking all learners seriously, no matter how basic or introductory the content they are learning may be.”

Research for the book began in 2019 with a study of 30 young adult visitors to the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The research continued during the pandemic with an analysis of digital learning sites, including Saturday Night Seder (an online fundraiser and communal celebration of the Passover holiday) and a popular Facebook site for fans of the Israeli television series Shtisel. After social distancing mandates began to be lifted, in-person research continued at a Ladino music concert celebrating the history and culture of Sephardic Jews and at two Broadway theatre shows that center Jewish themes and characters.  

On the face of it, this project is very different from Yares’ book about 19th-century Sunday schools. It focuses on cultural arts settings rather than classrooms, and it utilizes ethnographic data rather than archival research. Yet Yares sees clear continuities between the two.

“At the heart of all my work,” she said, “is a concern for taking education and learning seriously, and for taking all learners seriously, no matter how basic or introductory the content they are learning may be.”

Whether she is sitting in the archives to uncover the untold stories of 19th-century American Jewish women or talking to people to hear about what they have learned from watching a show or going to a concert, Yares says, “I am showing that moments of education and learning are where people are working out what it means to be religious in the world in which they live.”

Written by Lynn Waldsmith